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An Experienced Negotiator: An Interview with Chris Honeyman

Christopher Honeyman, Managing Partner, CONVENOR Conflict Management, based in Madison, WI and Washington, DC. He has led a fifteen-year series of large-scale conflict management research and development projects funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Christopher is co-editor of, and author or co-author of 8 chapters in the Fieldbook.


A Personal Career Path

Gini: Good morning, Chris. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with us. What attracted you to the field of conflict management in the first place?

Chris: I actually started with more of an interest in the systems and structures by which we govern ourselves than in the individual cases. So although I was doing cases full-time for many years, my real interests asserted themselves more and more as I was able to get involved in the systematic and structural problems of a new field (issues like how to define ethics across an astonishingly broad range of types of practice; quality control in mediation; the disjuncture between people whose sources of expertise are primarily research and theory, and those who draw their knowledge primarily from practical experience, and so on.) I’ve been very grateful to be able to work in these areas while continuing to be grounded in case-by-case practice.

G: If you knew earlier what you know now, would you still have pursued the same career path?

C: In the sense that I haven’t been disappointed by working in this field, yes. But in another sense, no, because (I think in common with a lot of people who join up with a field when it’s barely starting to be a field) I was particularly attracted by that sense of newness and possibility that you get only once. If I were in my 20s today, I might be looking for a field that was in that same stage, while our field has of course moved on, and the problems are different now.

G: What is the best advice that you have been given? And what advice would you give a budding conflict specialist?

C: The best advice I’ve been given actually had to do with seeking money from a major foundation to do something they were likely to perceive as very risky. The advice was to tell the people I was approaching everything that was bad about my ideas before they heard it from somebody else, because they were very smart and had all sorts of sources of information. I’ve tried to operate by that principle. But it’s not necessarily useful advice for people whose orientation is purely toward casework. And I don’t have any single piece of advice that would apply to different kinds of conflict specialists, so I’ll refrain.

Conflict Resolution Heroes

G: Do you have a “conflict resolution hero,” and if so, who and why?

C: No single person. There are a lot of people whose work I admire, but I see them as inspirational for different purposes and in different settings.

The Biggest Questions

G: What do you think are the big questions to be answered next in the conflict management field?

C: Integration of knowledge across disciplines and practice specialties is now top of my personal agenda, and of course I think we’re making some progress there, but it’s a recursive problem as the volume and diversity continue to go up. And the failure to come to grips with quality control, particularly in mediation, has made that an ongoing problem which I believe has cost the field dearly, and will continue to do so until the field’s internal politics catch up with what I now see as a relatively developed degree of technical competence in that area.

G: What is the major ethical issue facing the conflict management field?

C: My own stuff on ethics argues in the direction that the field is so internally diverse that an ethical issue that strongly affects one type of practice or practitioner is all but nonsensical in another area. But one ethical issue that I think really does apply across the board is the temptation not to be straight with the parties and the public as to the embedded values of a number of different programs and kinds of intervention. There are structures, for instance, in which mediation is offered under terms which are quite likely to restrict the choices the parties can make, in practice. For example, a program in which the amount of time the mediator has been allotted is restricted to an hour or two per case. That program may well be performing a valuable public service in the face of a shortage of resources; but if it doesn’t warn the parties that somebody pays a price for that kind of brevity (typically, in shallow investigation into the background and a restricted range of concepts as to how the dispute might be resolved), the parties are deprived of the forewarning which might encourage some of them to seek a more intensive and in-depth option. Other kinds of programs have other constraints, which some of them lay out for the parties and some avoid talking about, or are so inured to that they barely notice.

Thrills and Spills

G: What has been your biggest thrill in being a conflict specialist?

C: For me it’s been the opportunity to work on problems that are broad-ranging and that have potential—if I can figure out how to help solve them—to affect cases other than the one immediately be-fore me.

G: What has been your biggest mistake? C: I can’t figure that out—too many have gone off the scale.

G: Any regrets?

C: Je ne regrette rien.

G: Thank you, Chris.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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